The first-place Early Longhorns are riding the wave of a three-game district win streak into Friday night’s Brown County showdown, while an angry group of Bangs Dragons are looking to rebound from their first 3-2A Division I defeat and regain control of their postseason destiny as the two longtime rivals clash once again.
The pivotal battle between Early (3-4, 3-0) and Bangs (3-3, 1-1) is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Longhorn Stadium.
After an 0-4 start, the Longhorns have reeled off victories of 42-6 over Ingram Tom Moore, 35-20 over Brady and 50-28 over Grape Creek to vault to the top of the district standings with Wall.
“We have our three toughest district games ahead of us but our kids are excited about playing those games,” said Early head coach Brad Bowden. “We know we will have to play well to win but our kids are gaining confidence and garnering some momentum.
“Obviously, if we win this game, we are one step closer to securing a spot in the playoffs. I haven’t talked to the team in much detail about the different scenarios because our only focus should be on playing our best. Regardless of the scenarios, the only thing we can do to help our cause is play our best. Bangs is a rivalry game for us but more importantly it’s the next game and that’s the only game that matters. We just need to go play as well as we can and then get ready for the next one.”
Bangs head coach Chuck Lipsey feels the improvement Early has shown since the start of district is both apparent and drastic.
“They have improved their execution offensively and they are playing sound defense,” Lipsey said. “Those are the biggest keys that I see, and that has given them a lot of confidence. They have good enough athletes that if we don’t play very well, they will beat us.”
An underwhelming performance, particularly in the first half, against district favorite Wall last week resulted in a disappointing 57-20 loss for the Dragons.
“Last week is over,” Lipsey said. “We’ve got some regrets and we’re frustrated about it because I thought if we played well we’d have a chance to win it. I’m glad it’s over, I wish we could have got the win, but that one’s over. The kids came in Saturday and talked about it and we said we wanted to get it out of our system and be done with it. Our goal now is to win four in a row and get in the playoffs and that starts Friday night with the Early Longhorns.”
Though Bangs is coming off a loss, Bowden stated the Longhorns know exactly the challenge that awaits them.
“Bangs moves the ball well,” Bowden said. “They can run and throw well. They might show three backs one play and five receivers the next. Their quarterback has a good arm, sees the whole field well and is very accurate with his passes. When he has time, he can pick a defense apart.
“Defensively, Bangs is always solid. They don’t make many mistakes on assignments and they do a good job tackling.”
The Dragons enter the contest averaging 29 points and 296 yards of total offense — 177 passing and 119 rushing — per game, while allowing 33 points and 328 yards — 206 rushing and 122 passing — on average.
J.T. Newton has completed 67 of 117 passes for 1,059 yards with nine touchdowns while adding 116 yards and three scores on the ground. Matt Carter leads the Dragons with 22 receptions for 385 yards and seven touchdowns, while other receiving threats include Aaron Keller (11-253), Josh Beckwith (10-68, 2 TDs) and Cameron Deal (7-106). Bangs will again be without leading rusher Trenton Morgan (289 yards, 4 TDs), who suffered a dislocated elbow last week in practice, as Deal (36-135, 4 TDs), Efrayin Guerrero (17-119, TD) and Beckwith (17-102, 3 TDs) will rotate snaps in the backfield.
Keller leads the Bangs defense with 66 tackles trailed by Tanner Shaw with 55, Josh Truelove with 45 and two interceptions, Beckwith with 39 and two sacks and Deal with 34 tackles.
Early meanwhile, has dissected its opponents with precision during its current win streak.
During that stretch, the Longhorns have averaged 43 points and 383 yards — 208 rushing and 175 passing — per game, while giving up just 18 points and 267 yards — 150 passing and 117 passing — while forcing 12 turnovers, including seven last week, five on interceptions.
Jake Fisher has piled up 385 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, while also catching six passes for 130 yards and a pair of scores. Cameron Denison has connected on 37 of 50 pass attempts for 524 yards with nine touchdowns while chipping in 72 yards and two scores on the ground. Other key receivers in the Longhorns passing attack include Austin Isom (9-195, 4 TDs), Chase Riker (6-83), Charlie Tongate (6-32) and Colin Walker, who re-emerged with five catches for 37 yards and two touchdowns last week.
Defensively, Cody Morrison has led the charge with 28 tackles in district followed by 23 from Fisher, 22 from Junior Sanchez, 16 from Brandon Moore and 13 from Chris Moreno. Isom has contributed 10 tackles and three interceptions — two last week and a 68-yard pick six in the district opener.
Slowing down the Early offense has not been an easy task for 3-2A opponents thus far.
“We’re going to have to wear them down and be more physical, more aggressive, control the line of scrimmage and not give up big plays,” Lipsey said. “They moved the Fisher kid to tailback and he’s a hard-nosed runner who follows his blocks. The way he’s running the ball has taken pressure off Denison. Denison is scrappy and shifty and can hurt with you with those swivel hips. They also have a couple of guys on the perimeter who can catch the ball in traffic so we have to make sure we cover well and their blocking has gotten better up front.”
Added Bowden, “Offensively, we need to be able to spread the ball around. Bangs will bring a safety up close to the line of scrimmage to help with the run, so we will need to use formations and different players to offset that move.”
Bangs has manufactured the highest point total of either team this season, putting 61 on the board against Grape Creek in its district opener.
“Defensively, we need to pressure their quarterback as much as possible,” Bowden said. “He does a great job of extending plays and finding receivers down field, so we have to try to disrupt his timing as much as possible. When they are successful running or throwing the ball, we have to make sure tackles and minimize extra yardage after the catch or first contact.”
Added Lipsey, “Just like on offense, we need to wear them down and control the line of scrimmage. We also have to get the ball in our play makers’ hands and they have to make plays.”
The stakes of jockeying for position in the postseason race are high enough, but sprinkle in the rivalry between the two schools and both head coaches expect an intense encounter Friday night.
“I guess this rivalry has been here forever,” Lipsey said. “When I first got hired here all everybody talked about was the Early-Bangs game. All the old-timers talk about when they played in it. This is my fifth year here and it’s been a big game every year. The towns aren’t far apart, all the kids know each other and some of them have even played summer ball together. Early has played well the last three games, they are tied at the top of the district and our kids are ready for the challenge to go over there and get after them Friday night.”
Added Bowden, “Rivalry games are fun to play in and it does mean something to our kids. We want to beat them and they want to beat us. If we were both winless with no hope of going to the playoffs, that would still be true. However, since we are both fighting for a playoff spot it has more hinging on the outcome.”